URBANA — Even in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank were talking about the need to add more warehouse space to help feed more hungry people.
Now, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, the food bank has raised more than half the money needed to expand its 40,000-square-foot warehouse at 2405 N. Shore Drive, according to Molly Delaney, the agency’s vice president of development.
The agency now hopes to begin construction on this project next spring, she said.
Work is already underway to add a second loading dock also needed to accommodate increased demand for food assistance in the food bank’s 18-county service area.
Plans call for adding 18,000 square feet to the warehouse, to include more badly needed cold storage space for fresh foods.
Also included will be the addition of two loading docks to boost the total to four, a dedicated volunteer space and a conference center with technology to accommodate meetings both in house and remotely with the food bank’s partner agencies, among them a network of food pantries throughout the region, Delaney said.
The food bank relies a lot on volunteers to do sorting and repackaging of food from bulk containers into individual household sizes, she said.
Because of the pandemic, a dedicated space has become an even more pressing need so large enough groups of volunteers have enough space to work safely.
Pre-pandemic, volunteers would work in groups of 30-40, but are now working about 15 at a time, with masks on for safety, Delaney said.
With COVID-19 cases surging again, food bank officials are looking at scaling back plans for an upcoming all-day volunteer food-packing event to have just three different shifts and allow time in between for the ventilation system to clear the air and for the room to be sanitized, she said.
The pandemic has had a rolling effect on food needs.
In the recent years before the pandemic, the food bank distributed 10 million to 10.5 million pounds of food a year. That grew to 11.7 million pounds of food for the food bank’s fiscal year that ended this past June 30.
That was less of an increase than was anticipated, likely due to the impact of pandemic-related extended unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits and stimulus checks, Delaney said.
While the increase in food assistance was greater in the pandemic’s earliest months, the need is still higher than it’s ever been, and those government benefits will eventually end, she said.
“We don’t have predictability about when that will end, but we know it’s coming,” she said.
The food bank has raised about $2.1 million toward the total $3.6 million needed for the expansion project, and there are plans to launch a public capital campaign to raise the remaining money early next year, Delaney said.
“Things are going well, and the community has been very generous,” she said. “We’ve seen tremendous support from our local community.
The Urbana-based Eastern Illinois Foodbank serves Champaign, Clark, Clay, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeWitt, Douglas, Edgar, Ford, Iroquois, Jasper, Livingston, McLean, Moultrie, Piatt, Vermilion and Woodford counties.